My promised rant about The Mummy 3: How To Waste Jet Li has been postponed momentarily so I can make this horrible confession. Though I don’t want to say it, and feel like I’m betraying everyone I know and love, I watched Paul W. S. Anderson’s Death Race a few hours ago, and I didn’t think it was the worst film of the year. Whether this has anything to do with seeing the truly appalling 88 Minutes a couple of days earlier, I do not know. BTW, if you’re after a synopsis of Death Race, read the Wiki page I just linked to. There’s no way I’m going to go through it again, which means I’m exhibiting as much effort as Anderson did while writing it.
I usually cannot abide anything the guy does. Resident Evil remains one of my least favourite films of all time, Aliens Vs. Predator defecated all over two franchises that even hacks like Stephen Hopkins and Jean-Pierre Jeunet couldn’t soil beyond salvation, and I’ll never forgive the guy for wrecking David Webb Peoples’ script for Soldier. Knowing that he was going to swallow Paul Bartel’s entertaining Death Race 2000 and then regurgitate it out as a hairball of mediocrity angered me a lot, though perhaps not as much as the die-hard fans of the original.
Of course, PWSA has stripped the original tale of its subversive edge and satirical bite, turning in a homogenous tale of wronged convicts and duplicitous wardens, as if crossing Steve Jackson’s Car Wars and John McTiernan’s Rollerball remake with John Flynn’s Lock-Up, adding just a dash of Mario Kart to appeal to the gamers in the audience, while cynically introducing exploitation tropes like exploding people, gratuitous hotties, and Grizzled Old-Timer Ian McShane saying “Bullshit” a lot (but sadly, no “Cocksucker”). The cast aids and abets PWSA in his quest for mediocrity. The usually likable Jason Statham merely scowls and shows off his disconcertingly buff bod, Tyrese Gibson fails to act (as usual), and worst of all, Joan Allen appears as the warden of the prison within which the Death Race takes place. Having had her face filled to bursting with enough botox to kill a blue whale, she is incapable of emoting anything other than muted anger. It’s like she’s trapped behind a mask that looks like a puffy parody of her own face.
This, more than anything else on display, depressed me totally. Joan Allen is a terrific actress (if you don’t believe me check out her turn as Pat Nixon in Oliver Stone’s biopic of the shamed President), but here she has been plastinated so badly that she looks like a cross between Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and a cat with Moebius Syndrome. Just to rub the misery in, she also gets to deliver such lines as “Release the Dreadnought!” and, worst of all, “Okay cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we’ll see who shits on the sidewalk”, which is obviously PWSA trying to please the audience by getting an Oscar-nominated actress to utter profanities in a “shocking” manner, but just ends up sounding desperate, not to mention incomprehensible.
This all might have worked if the whole enterprise wasn’t so joyless and measured, aiming for a Grindhouse aesthetic but blowing it by being too neat and tidy. People explode, cars fly through the air, necks get snapped, and men hoot and holler at the sexy ladies brought in for no other reason than that sexy women attract viewers (an actual bit of meta-exposition from the film, horribly enough), but it feels hollow and gratuitous. That’s saying something, considering Grindhouse movies are supposed to be hollow and gratuitous, but this is like the pod person version of those movies, all sheen and competence instead of enthusiasm and imagination.
And yet I still found myself enjoying it on a lizard-brain level, perhaps because I thought the design on the cars was so sweet. They don’t look particularly battle-hardened, even when peppered with bullet-holes, but they look butch and tooled-up. Who can resist the sight of a car covered with mini-guns, even though, illogically, they fire constantly throughout the movie and never seem to destroy anything?
PWSA has raised his game with the action scenes as well. Though repetitive and often unimaginative, they are at least edited and shot with more coherence than a lot of modern action films, and with more muscular effect than he has exhibited in his previous, lethargic films. They’re not perfect by a long shot, and confusion creeps in from time to time, but for the most part they are mindlessly fun to watch, with the added bonus of seeming to be filmed using real cars, pyrotechnics, and stuntmen (with sporadic CGI blowouts). Sadly, all of the good will generated by that commitment to real stuntwork was erased at the end of the film when Ian McShane addressed the camera. Totally unearned, and utterly embarrassing. You don’t mistreat Al Swearengen like that, Anderson, you tool.
So basically I’m saying the movie does not count as pure FAIL, which is a really insipid bit of praise, but considering how badly this most awful of directors usually screws up, it’s a notable improvement. However, compare it to Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, and the lack of quality becomes apparent. That was exactly the film this wished it was, and once more I urge any readers to watch it immediately. Either that or watch 88 Minutes. I’m serious! That shit is off the mu’fukken chain.
Oh, and for the ladies (and gay fellas) who have just Googled “Jason Statham hot muscles”, here is a screencap of him doing pull-ups, which he does in the middle of the film for no reason other than that his fanbase kinda expects this to happen at least once a film.